'I'm more prepared to win now' - Denning

Mixed martial arts

Focus and motivation have always been key battles for fighters to overcome. A lapse in either can cause the head to drop, concentration to soften, result of which is a missed step that can spell a knock-out loss, or worse, serious injury.

Lockdown has been difficult for all sports, but consider this: how do you prepare to stand toe-to-toe with a person you’ve only ever seen throw a punch on a laptop?

Harder still, how do you face an opponent when the toughest fight of the past year has been the psychological grapple of when normalcy will return, and if keeping up the effort will ever be rewarded again?

When the Celt speaks with MMA fighter Jordan Denning he’s packing his training bag before going to meet the 109 bus to take him from Cavan to Navan.

He carefully tucks a neatly typed letter from his coach, stamped with the Clan Wars logo, into a side pocket. For all intents and purposes this is like the ‘Golden Ticket’ from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“I’ll never take it for granted again,” chuckles the Cavan Institute Sport’s Development graduate, who considers himself “lucky” getting to travel outside the restricted five kilometres.

“It’s incredible how you miss something once it’s taken away from you. Since we got the green light to go ahead with the fight I’ve been absolutely delighted. I can’t wait to sit for an hour on the bus,” he laughs.

Despite his amateur fighter status, Jordan qualifies as an elite athlete for his upcoming appearance at Clan Wars 40 in Belfast on Sunday, March 21. The Lightweight division bout, taken at short notice by the Swellan-native, is against the 3-0 Aaron McDonald.

Ranked 92 among UK/Ireland Amateur Lightweights, McDonald has “hype” in his corner. He finished his last opponent, Tony Dolan, in impressive fashion, with a brutal knock-out just 14 seconds into Round 2 in February last year. His two fights before that were by decision.

Jordan, by contrast, knows he has something to prove. His own record stands at 3-3 after his last two fights, for individual titles at Clan Wars 35 against Carl Gallagher, and Battle Arena 57 against Stanmir Madrov, ended in losses by decision.

Prove himself

A lesser fighter might’ve been hurt more. When Jordan pulls on his gloves to face McDonald in the coming weeks, it will have been a year-and-a-half since he last fought. He’s certainly had plenty of time to ruminate over the significance of those losses, both personally and from a career standpoint.

But Jordan’s chin is made of strong stuff. He’s eager for any opportunity to prove himself against the best. Why? Because he believes he stands tall among them.

Jordan took on the fight after McDonald’s opponent withdrew. He scouted the Belfast-born McDonald, who fights out of EFR Martial Arts, on YouTube. Once he had finished he closed his laptop unimpressed, and didn’t hesitate in dialling his coach, JiuJitsu specialist Keith Cooper of Coopers’ MMA in Navan, to accept the challenge.

“I gave him a quick look on Clan Wars and I just thought, ‘Yeah I’ll take that’” gauges Jordan. “Don’t get me wrong, he seems like a good striker and all, but I feel I’m better on my feet than him. He’s taller but I could take to the ground if I need to. He is 3-0, but the opponents he’s faced, none are as tough as I’ll be.”

Jordan’s losses against Gallagher - a fight taken at just two weeks’ notice - and Madrov, involved cutting weight to fit the 66kg Featherweight requirement.

McDonald represents a welcome return to 70kg for Jordan, who is currently ranked 169th in the UK and Ireland in the division, 77 places behind his opponent.

“I’m confident in my abilities and that I’m capable of being top tier for my division in Europe,” remarks Jordan who, in hindsight, recognises trimming to Featherweight took an unwelcome toll. Fighters can often be their own worst enemies, especially when it comes to resting their bodies.

“At 66kg, that was a tough cut, especially that last title fight, and not enough time maybe to adapt. There was just three months between those fights as well. So 70kg is definitely more natural for me,” reflects Jordan who stands at average height for a Lightweight fighter, but feels he punches to a much heavier weight.

“You learn a lot from losing,” says Jordan, who has matured as a person and an athlete in the 12 months.

“Even my knowledge has evolved. Little details, like when I’m grappling, I’m calmer, more considered. I think two steps ahead now. I’m more methodical. I know in my mind how to set things up better. I’m fixing issues I maybe brushed over before. Errors I’ve made in the past, openings I’ve missed, I’ve tightened those up.”

Learn

When the Celt last interviewed Jordan it was just after the fight against Gallagher at Clan Wars 35 in Belfast. He was hurt - not physically, but emotionally. A technically proficient grappler from Team KF Martial Arts in Dublin, Gallagher subdued Jordan’s crushing blows and spent much of the fight dominating the Cavan fighter on the mat.

“If you’re not hitting, you’re not winning,” stated Jordan after that fight. He stands by that assessment.

The bout against Madrov was much closer than the unanimous judges’ decision reflects.

But even the experience of facing someone “playing safe” in a bid to grind out a win and climb up the rankings has been a “learning curve” for the perhaps overly enthusiastic Jordan.

If Jordan beats McDonald at Clan Wars 40, the upshot is a potential chance at winning the division belt.

“I went into fights looking to make something happen instead of letting it happen. I’ve learned the hard way that I wasn’t top tier at that time of my career.

“I took it hard. It’s never easy to admit defeat. But the only way to grow as an athlete, as a person, is to accept it, learn from it, move on. I’ve done that. I’m more prepared to win now.”

Winning starts with training at least three-times a week and taking rest days seriously.

It also begins each day by keeping track of any potential flu symptoms. At this stage the slightest cough or sniffle would all but scupper the fight going ahead. Under guidelines, which apply to all sports facilities, even elite gyms must follow strict hygiene and social distancing measures.

In the fight game sparring is essential.

The past year Jordan has contented himself with turning his apartment floor into a fight studio. Others have been forced to take to their garages or back gardens to retain peak fighting fitness.

It’s been a double-edged sword. Though Jordan is not working with other fighters, on the flip side it has given him time to tweak the mental aspects of his approach.

In one sense, it could make his upcoming battle against McDonald a more open fight, with both men having to rely more on their individual fighter’s instinct to both survive and dominate.

“Training for something you don’t know will happen is like living in a vacuum,” admits Jordan, who found himself embracing more traditional training methods - like shadow boxing - to help keep his mind sharp.

“You do your best. There are months, bursts of getting up and going for a run and really going for it, willing yourself to do better. And then there were weeks when it was very hard, a new guideline would come in making things even harder, and you’d wonder what’s the point at all? In the end you do it because you love it. Because you’re excited by competition.”

In normal circumstances, Jordan would pit his wits against fighters he feels have a similar size, build or skill-set to his opponent. But these are abnormal circumstances.

Jordan is lucky that one of his Coopers’ MMA stablemates Max Zamurakin is also on the billing. They now share part of the same bubble.

“[Max] is very well-rounded as a fighter. He’s a good striker, but his ground game is extraordinary. If [McDonald] was very particular in one area, this fight might’ve been more difficult to take. But from what I’ve seen, he’s quite general in his approach.

“Anything can happen in a fight. Apart from that we’re relying on the fact they’re as limited as we are.”

Biggest struggle

Another thing Jordan must prepare for in the bout ahead is fighting with no audience baying for blood.

He praises Clan Wars for pressing ahead with the upcoming event, which is available to watch online after the promotions company signed a deal with Fightworld TV.

“There was a time when people didn’t know would we ever get back to where we are. But I’m very thankful that we are starting to see it coming back.

“I’m quite driven and am used to having goals in front of me. Being forced to not have that for the past year has been the biggest struggle to try to overcome. Of course it will be strange not having an audience there, that’ll be the first thing immediately obvious, the buzz you get from that, I don’t know how that’ll be. But once I step in [to the ring] it’ll all fall into place.”

Clan Wars Elite series is on Saturday and Sunday, March 20 and 21. PPV, priced at £12, is available from the fighters’ bios on the Clan Wars MMA website.

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